Merrill takes heat but wins Oak Harbor fire chief’s job

Ray Merrill addresses the Oak Harbor City Council Tuesday night prior to the vote to confirm his appointment as the new fire chief. Merrill said he felt like “a pawn in a political machine” at the last meeting.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Ray Merrill addresses the Oak Harbor City Council Tuesday night prior to the vote to confirm his appointment as the new fire chief. Merrill said he felt like “a pawn in a political machine” at the last meeting.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

A rare scene unfolded at the Oak Harbor City Council meeting Tuesday night as audience members applauded, hugged and shook hands following a decision by the council.

By a surprise 4-3 vote, the council members approved the confirmation of Ray Merrill as the next fire chief. It appeared during the discussion that there weren’t enough votes to confirm the mayor’s controversial appointment, but Councilman Bob Severns apparently changed his mind in favor of hiring Merrill.

In the end, council members Severns, Jim Campbell, Danny Paggao and Tara Hizon voted to confirm the mayor’s appointment of Merrill. Council members Beth Munns, Rick Almberg and Joel Servatius voted in opposition.

The audience was crowded with firefighters and others who were there to support Merrill, the former battalion chief of the city’s fire department, and to express anger at council members who had delayed and threatened to scuttle the confirmation. At the last meeting, the majority of council members voted to table the confirmation over concerns that the advertising and interviewing process was abbreviated, opaque and appeared to be rigged.

The confirmation was back on the agenda Tuesday, after Mayor Scott Dudley followed the council’s demand for a presentation about the costs associated with the terminations and the retirement of several department heads. Several people in the audience accused the council members of playing a political game to thwart the mayor.

“Do not put the Oak Harbor Fire Department in the middle of the conflict you have with him,” firefighter Rich Rogers said.

“It sounds to me like it was a political ploy to embarrass the mayor,” resident Bill Strowbridge charged.

Kyla Pearce, 25, suggested that the council owed Merrill an apology.

“You are all older than I am and you should know better,” she said.

Merrill addressed the council briefly and explained why he had withdrawn his application from consideration for the job at the end of the last meeting; he later reinstated his application, at the mayor’s urging. He sat though the March 6 meeting as several council members discussed evidence they believed suggested the mayor had promised Merrill the fire chief position last year and that the hiring process was a sham.

“I felt I was a pawn in a political machine,” said Merrill, who has denied that he was promised the job.

Councilwoman Beth Munns, however, wasn’t swayed. She earned boos and groans from the audience when she had a video segment played that showed Merrill’s brief statement at the end of the last meeting. In the clip, Merrill says he was withdrawing his application and couldn’t “in good conscience” work with the city after what he saw that night.

“This shows his temperament and, I’m sorry, I demand more from my department heads,” she said.

Councilman Rick Almberg pointed out that Dudley apologized for the imperfect process, but he said nothing has happened to change it since the last meeting.

Councilman Joel Servatius said he spoke to many people on both sides of the issue. He explained that he discussed the hiring process with fire department professionals who said they didn’t want to be on the city’s interview panel or apply for the job because they felt the selection of Merrill was “a foregone conclusion.”

Severns said he was sorry that he made a motion to table the confirmation at the last meeting. He suggested the city could have a new hiring process and he hoped that Merrill would again rise to the top.

On the other hand, Councilman Danny Paggao said the city should continue “driving forward” with Merrill at the helm of the fire department.

Councilwoman Tara Hizon said she now supports hiring Merrill because she received the information she needed. She complained at the last meeting that council members received only a few sentences about Merrill.

Councilman Jim Campbell pointed out that Dudley was following the hiring process approved by the city council, which sets policy for the city. He suggested that the council members should stop pointing fingers and instead each admit it is his or her fault.

After confirming the appointment of Merrill, the council took up the issue of Merrill’s employment contract. They ultimately voted to approve the contract for $136,000 a year in salary and benefits, but not without discussion.

Munns expressed concern that Merrill’s salary will be set at “step 6” on a 7-step pay grid for department heads. She said she’s trying to be prudent with the city’s money and that the higher pay seems “a little out of line.”

“I know he’s had many years of service, but he’s never been a fire chief before,” she said, adding that he hasn’t proven himself in that position yet.

Likewise, Servatius said he would like to see Merrill at a lower step because he has no incentive to stay for the long haul. He said Merrill’s pay will top out next year, which means he can then retire at the highest level. Also, he pointed out that the mayor told Merrill last year that he was interested in him for the position.

“I’m concerned about how much negotiating really went on,” he said.

Human Resources Director Jessica Neill Hoyson said she recommended a salary of 9 percent above what Merrill was making in his previous position of battalion chief, but the contract Dudley negotiated represented a 15 percent increase. Finance Director Doug Merriman, however, said Merrill was actually making a lot more as battalion chief --- just slightly less than the former chief --- if “command pay” is factored in.

Dudley also emphasized that Merrill will make less than the former fire chief, Mark Soptich.

In the end, only Servatius voted against the contract.


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